Cruel to Be Kind

In plays such as Fat Pig and Reasons to be Pretty and similarly dyspeptic films like In the Company of Men, playwright Neil LaBute has spared no mercy in displaying just how cruel man can be, invading the dark corners of the mind people keep hidden from strangers and shining a bright light upon them. bash, one of LaBute’s earlier works of note (it debuted Off-Broadway a decade ago featuring a searing cast that included Ron Eldard and Calista Flockhart), is perhaps one of his most searing. Director Robert Knopf certainly holds nothing back in Chris Chaberski's and Eastcheap Rep’s current production, running at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory.

The show is essentially a triptych of three extended monologues. Though the order has changed in various productions, the first of the three scenes I saw was “Medea Redux.” It features a lone woman, matter-of-factly addressing the audience about a sexual relationship she had with her teacher when she was thirteen years old. The unnamed woman ultimately becomes pregnant from this relationship, but keeps the child and defends this teacher, even though the two eventually become estranged.

Chelsea Lagos plays the woman in a performance that’s part endurance test and part act of deception: her character tells us a lot, and does so in very carefully measured amounts, but what is most important is what she doesn’t tell us. LaBute’s most important character attributes lie in what remains unsaid. It isn’t that his narrators in bash are unreliable, but that what we see is not totally what we get. The playwright wants us to dig in between the lines and come up with our own conclusions, forcing us to turn a mirror on our own dark impulses.

Take, for example, the next monologue, “Iphigenia in Orem,” starring Luke Rosen as Young Man. Rosen, in a wonderfully polished performance, recounts to an unseen party (and really to us) how a practical joke between himself and a work colleague escalated severely. As with Lagos’ Young Woman, circumstances eventually escalate to the point where the Young Man makes a shocking decision. This is shocking not just because of the weight of the decision, but also jarring because his assured delivery doesn’t fit that weight appropriately.

More than most of LaBute’s plays, including his later Wrecks, bash reflects the playwright’s dexterous ear for language and imagery. He knows how to make these long scenes more palatable for his less auditory audience members. Throughout the play, he subverts the major events of each monologue. His characters gloss over heavy subjects effortlessly – sometimes Lagos and Rosen display sweetness or fondness when describing difficult certain choices they have made – and speak in a lilting, lyrical way.

Knopf also demonstrates real style for each monologue. Each scene feels perfectly paced, and make the seemingly impossible possible: he finds a way into each character that not only hooks us in, but makes us care regardless of the information we get from them. We feel the pain, shame, foolishness and regret that these characters have experienced at some point in the stories they share.

And it really does feel like sharing. Throughout the performance, we feel as though we are right there witnessing the acts discussed in the play, rather than simply hearing accounts of past incidents. Nowhere is this more paramount than the second act monologue, “A Gaggle of Saints,” in which Lagos and Rosen play Sue and John, a New England couple who recount a disturbing trip to New York in ways that contradict each other while filling in missing blanks.

Lagos and Rosen are perfectly cast in each of their two roles. They both feel completely honest and lend an enormous amount of credibility to their respective pieces of the show. Additionally, Jessica Fialko’s design deserves mention, particularly the lighting, which becomes a character of its own during the performance.

Perhaps the most alarming about bash may be the same thing that makes it the most successful. Knopf’s production shows that, while cruelty can take many different forms and occur in a variety of different situations, it is something that lives in all of us.

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